Monumental Structure in Sicily Isn’t a Phoenician Harbor – It’s a Huge Sacred Pool of Baal

The kothon of Motya in southern Sicily had first been assumed to be an artificial harbor. It wasn’t, archaeologist Lorenzo Nigro of Sapienza proves

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The refurbished 'kothon' with a replica of the statue of Baal at its center.
The refurbished 'kothon' with a replica of the statue of Baal at its center.Credit: Antiquity Publication Ltd / Sapienza University of Rome
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

And Elijah waxed sarcastic with the prophets of Baal after the god disdained their pleading to light a fire beneath an unfortunate sacrificial bullock: “Cry aloud; for he is a god; either he is musing, or he is gone aside, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked” – Kings 18: 27

The great Baal, whose name means “owner” or “master,” whose fief depended on when and where he was being adored – king of the gods, god of the seasons and the storm, god of fertility, god of rain and thunder, whose name was legion; worshipped from Ugarit to North Africa and across the Mediterranean thousands of years ago, and anathema to the priests of Yahweh, Baal would become Bel to the Arameans, and Belos or Belios to the ancient Greeks, which is a crucial point to this story.

The “artificial harbor” discovered in the Phoenician port of Motya in southern Sicily in the early 20th century was no such thing. The monumental rectangular basin had been misinterpreted. It has now shown to have been a gigantic sacred pool in honor of Baal that operated during the city’s Phoenician period, from the 8th to the 5th centuries B.C.E., archaeologist Prof. Lorenzo Nigro of Sapienza University in Rome explains in the journal Antiquity.

He wrote about the nature of the structure as a pool and not a harbor in 2014, but now Nigro explains that the pool likely served an astronomical role, too, and new finds associated with it underscore the city’s multicultural nature. In fact the freshwater pool was the center of a monumental religious complex with three temples, surrounded by a circular wall.

A plan of the sacred area.Credit: Antiquity Publication Ltd / Sapienza University of Rome Expedition to Motya

The site of Motya (or Motye or Mozzia) has been occupied since prehistory, as befits a lovely place on the Mediterranean. The city arose on the western shore of the island of San Pantaleo about 2,800 years ago, after Phoenicians sailing out of Lebanon discovered the island, established a presence, and cohabited with the prehistoric inhabitants, the Elymians. The result was a new, distinctive “West Phoenician” cultural identity, Nigro deduces.

The Phoenician city at Motya was founded about a century after the establishment of the great and terrible Phoenician-Canaanite city of Carthage in Tunisia, and that city was not amused. As Motya’s influence in the Mediterranean region grew, the two cities came into conflict. Come the mid-sixth century B.C.E., envious Carthage would wipe the upstart city and its defensive wall off the map.

Yet this “West Phoenician” city would arise anew, with a new outer defensive wall and monumental religious compounds, one in the north of the island (honoring the god Melqart) and one in the south. In about 400 B.C.E. it would be destroyed again, this time by Dionysus Syracuse.

An ancient stele known as 'Baal with thunderbolt,' on display at the Louvre Museum.Credit: Jastrow/ Louvre Museum

This story is about the southern religious complex during the Phoenician phase of the city, before Dionysus, from about 2,800 to 2,500 years ago, before its second destruction.

Looming over all, Baal

It is clear in hindsight why the purpose of the monumental rectangular basin was misinterpreted when first discovered in 1906 by the Anglo-Sicilian archaeologist Joseph Whitaker, who thought it was an artificial harbor called a kothon.

Kothon (or cothon) is a Greek word for a round-mouthed clay or metal drinking vessel used by Spartan soldiers, and in classical records came to indicate the name of the giant ring-shaped artificial harbor in Carthage. Thinking he had found a closed harbor, Whitaker dubbed the rectangular basin in Motya “cothon.” In honor of Whitaker, the first person to investigate the basin of Motya, Nigro continued to call the rectangular structure a kothon even though it isn’t one, he explains.

Back to Whitaker in the early 20th century: He had noticed a channel between the basin and the sea and assumed it had been dug for boats to sail through. He therefore posited that the structure was an artificial harbor for military purposes, akin to Carthage’s kothon.

Credit: Vikarna & Kalicine730 / Yelets

In 1971, Benedikt Isserlin of Leeds University (at the time), also writing in the journal Antiquity, described excavation of a dry-dock at Motya, but as Nigro points out, that structure didn’t involve the basin itself.

Why couldn’t it have been a kothon? Lots of reasons. As Nigro has pointed out, in Phoenician times, the Mediterranean was 80 centimeters lower than it is today (climate change at work). At 37 by 52.5 meters in area, the pool is on the wee side for a harbor; The Carthaginian kothon, in comparison, was immense, with an external area slated for merchants and an internal area for military boats. Some other Phoenician ports, such as Mahdia and Kition, also had kothons. But in Whitaker’s defense, as sacred pools went, this was big. (Later, the Romans used the kothos of Motya to farm fish; and centuries later, from the 16th to 18th centuries C.E., the pool served as a salt pan.)

Block with the carved foot of a statue found on the edge of the pool.Credit: Antiquity Publication Ltd / Museo Archeologico Regionale A. Salinas, Palermo

The interpretation that it was a sacred pool is supported by the fact that the Phoenicians’ sites of worship throughout their realm were characterized by natural or artificial sources of water for ablution and ritual purposes. “[Phoenician] sanctuaries built nearby indicate that some springs became monumentalized and venerated,” Elvira Groenewoud wrote in 2001. And back then, the sacred pool of Motya was fed by not one, but at least three groundwater springs originating in a subterranean aquifer, Nigro demonstrated.

These freshwater sources were discovered after the kothos had been drained for purposes of excavation. That is when it was demonstrated that at no point in the Phoenician period had the kothos been connected with the sea, Nigro explains. So an artificial harbor, it definitely could not have been. It was also shallow, being 80 centimeters to 1.5 meters in depth, hardly the ticket for war boats to maneuver.

Also inconvenient for boating, but suitable for veneration, smack in the middle of this freshwater sacred pool stood a stone statue of Baal that would have towered 2.4 meters in height, Nigro says, though it isn’t there anymore – we will get back to this point. The god stood on a podium 1.5 meters tall, he suggests.

Ahead of the new paper, the team set up a replica of the Baal statue in the pool, which made “everything clearer” and also excavated more of the “temenos,” the circular wall surrounding the religious compound with the three temples, the archaeologist says.

Sailing out of Lebanon by the stars

The grandiose temples were discovered during renewed excavations that began in 2002. One was a large temple to Baal that operated from around 800 B.C.E. to around 397 B.C.E., Nigro deduced, writing in a previous paper that the nature of the structures show hallmarks of the roots of the Motya Phoenicians in their homeland of Canaan (Lebanon).

Southern wall of the kothonCredit: Antiquity Publication Ltd / Sapienza University of Rome Expedition to Motya
Credit: Mark A. Wilson / Wilson44691

Excavations from 2009 to 2021 unveiled the “temenos” wall that had surrounded the sacred compound and once stood about three meters high. The archaeologists also found a temple to the goddess Astarte and a cultic building that Nigro dubbed the “Sanctuary of the Holy Waters” because of its hydraulic and cultic structures: among other things, the sanctuary includes a shrine and an area for animal sacrifices.

A sandstone statue of male deity found in 1933 in Sicily's Marsala Lagoon.Credit: Antiquity Publication Ltd / Museo Archeologico Regionale A. Salinas, Palermo

But crucially, he believes the pool at the center of the complex may have also served as a surface to observe and map the stars. The water surface would have mirrored the sky, as water does – none other than Leonardo da Vinci pointed out the attributes of inert standing water when studying the night sky. For one thing, the stars were adored by the Phoenicians, whether as gods or deceased ancestors; and the position of the constellations was of keen interest to the sailors among them for navigation purposes, Nigro points out.

The constellations’ positions in the night sky on significant dates, such as solstices and equinoxes, are mirrored in the alignments of the main structures at the compound, he found. Steles were “carefully placed within the temenos to mark the rising, zenith, or setting of the stars over the horizon,” he writes.

“The Temple of Ba’al, its propylaea (gateway) and a number of aligned stelae are all orientated towards the point on the horizon where Orion rises immediately after sunset at the winter solstice,” he specifies. The orientations are based on archaeo-astronomical reconstruction of the night sky when the temple was built, around 550 B.C.E., Nigro explains in a separate paper.

Which brings us back to Baal and the missing statue in the middle of the sacred pool. If the statue is gone (all but one carved foot on a stone block), why think it was of Baal? Because, Nigro explains, the archaeologists discovered an inscription with a Greek dedication to “Belios” in a votive pit beside the pool’s south-eastern corner.

An excavated site at Motya.Credit: David Holt

Greek? Not Phoenician script? Yes, Motya was a multi-cultural city and this Greek inscription is fundamentally important, Nigro explains, adding: “It is dated to the middle of the sixth century B.C.E., on paleographic grounds and also thanks to the small aryballos where it is inscribed.”

There was a statue still present, not of Baal, but apparently of a god with the head of dog-eared baboon, the representative of the god Thoth, lending credence to the astronomical theory of the pool’s function, Nigro says.

The Phoenicians worshiped not only Baal and Thoth, but also cosmic elements. Baal, for instance, was represented by the constellation Orion, Nigro says, and at Motya, the Temple of Ba’al, the gates and several aligned steles are oriented towards the point on the horizon where Orion rises immediately after sunset at the winter, based on archaeo-astronomical reconstruction of the sky in about 550 B.C.E.

Baal was also worshipped by the Canaanites and became the bugbear of the Yahweh followers, though early Israelites were clearly not the diehard monotheists that modern Jews tend to assume. They apparently adored quite the pantheon, including Baal. But Baal was especially irksome, it seems; his name appears dozens of times in the Bible, never in a good way; to this day, Israel has cities named after the god.

Yet prevail, Baal did not; towns in biblical Israel named after him are gone, while towns named after other gods, including Shamash, the moon god Yarekh, and El, are everywhere. The turning point may have been the reported drive by Queen Jezebel (daughter of King Ithobaal of Tyre!) to force Israel to worship Baal by purging the prophets of Yahweh, as described in I Kings 18. It didn’t work.

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